According to myth, the founding of Rome was attributed to twin brothers Romulus and Remus. In this lesson, learn the origin of these legendary brothers, their tragic early life, and how they became iconic figures in the history of Rome.
Romulus and Remus
The legend of the founding of Rome dates back to 753 BCE. While this myth has little basis in fact, the Romans used it to explain their past and provide a sense of heroism and inspiration. In this sense, the founding myth gave the citizens of Rome a dignified and a divine ancestry. Modern historians believe that the myth of the founding of Rome began sometime in the 4th century BCE. By 269 BCE, the now well-known image of the twin infants and the she-wolf appeared on Roman coins. The she-wolf nurturing the twins became an iconic symbol of Rome that can still be seen in various locations today.
Lineage and Early Life
According to Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus were the twin sons of a woman named Rhea Silvia and Mars, the god of war. Originally from a mythical land called Alba Longa, said to be located southeast of what would become Rome, Rhea was the daughter of King Numitor. When the throne was stolen by the king's younger brother Amulius, Rhea was forced to become a Vestal Virgin, or a priestess of the Roman goddess Vesta. Amulius hoped that this would prevent her from having any children to challenge his power.
However, upon hearing that Rhea was pregnant, Amulius attempted to have the twins drowned in the Tiber River. He had them placed inside a woven basket that was thrown in the river, believing they would drown. Miraculously, Romulus and Remus survived and washed ashore. The helpless infants were then found and nurtured by a she-wolf. Eventually, a shepherd named Faustulus found them and took them home. The twins were then raised by the shepherd and his wife, and they became shepherds themselves.
Founding Rome and the Death of Remus
Once they were told of their tragic background, however, the twins attacked King Amulius and restored Numitor to the throne. Romulus and Remus then decided to found a town on the site where they had been saved by the she-wolf. However, an argument between the twins led to the death of Remus by his brother's hand. The reasons for the argument remain unclear, though some sources say it had to do with exactly where or upon what hill the town would be founded.
The Sabine War and Joint Kingship
According to legend, Romulus invited fugitives and exiles to his settlement, which he had firmly established after his brother's death. This settlement would become the city of Rome. He also abducted the women of the neighboring Sabines, the people who had settled the area near the Apennine Mountains. Angered by the abduction of their women, the Sabines and several others, under the leadership of Titus Tatius, king of the Sabines, marched on Rome and launched an attack against Romulus and his forces.
When the Romans seemed to be losing, Romulus called on the god Jupiter for help. The tide of the battle then quickly turned in favor of Romulus and his forces, who we can now call the Romans. At this point, however, legend tells us the captured Sabine women urged for a peace agreement between the Romans and the Sabines. And thus, the two peoples agreed to a peace settlement, and Romulus and Tatius became joint kings for several years thereafter.
Conflicting Legends and the Death of Romulus
The legends are unclear about the circumstances and reasons for Romulus' death. One version says he disappeared during a violent storm and was never seen again. Another claims he was changed into the god Quirinus. Yet another version cites the ambition of the Roman senators as the cause of his demise, perhaps killing him to place the power of the government solely in their own hands.
The details of the founding myth of Rome changed over time. Nevertheless, ancient Romans considered this story a true tale of their origins. The legend of Romulus and Remus gave Romans a divine ancestry since the twins were said to be the offspring of the god Mars and the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia. The story also presented a lesson in overcoming adversity. The twins were left in the Tiber River to drown, but they miraculously survived. First nurtured by a she-wolf and then raised by a shepherd and his wife, they came from humble upbringings.
After learning of their attempted murder, they took the throne from their great-uncle and gave it back to their grandfather. Soon after, a disagreement of unknown origins caused Romulus to kill Remus, founding the city of Rome and naming it after himself in the process. A brief war with the Sabines, known as the Sabine War, led to a peace agreement and joint rule with Titus Tatius. Years later, the death of Romulus occurred under mysterious circumstances. This founding myth has remained so popular that it continues to be used in artwork in Rome today!